It was only as England’s two buses departed the Stadio Olimpico at around 12.45am on Sunday morning that Gareth Southgate got to scroll through the many, many messages of congratulations on his phone. The majority naturally received a lot of gratitude in response, but also the same three words back.
“On to Wednesday.”
The mood was that bit different from England’s last quarter-final victory, against Sweden in the 2018 World Cup. There was satisfaction and celebration in Rome, yes, but it was no great sensation. No one was describing it as an unbelievable feeling this time.
If there is still a big question over whether this group can be champions, they are now undeniably a tournament team. They are attuned to the rhythm of these events. Latter-stage knockout games no longer hold any sense of awe. Much like classic German or French sides of the past, these players see the semi-finals as the stage they belong on. Just getting to the last four is no longer sufficient.
“The interesting part for us is we won’t feel totally satisfied if it’s just a semi-final, whereas maybe three years ago – although there was massive disappointment after the semi-final – there was a feeling we’d come a long way,” Southgate said. “Now we’ve replicated what we did there, but that won’t be enough to fulfil the group.”
That evolution in thinking is important and it comes from hard experience.
Much has been made of how Southgate and his staff conducted detailed studies into what wins tournaments, but there’s a difference between knowing the path and living it. The latter is what really brings teams on.
“You can put scenarios in and it definitely helps,” Southgate added, “but the reality is it is going through the games together, going through those real-life experiences together and there’s no shortcut to that.”
Gareth Southgate reacts to England’s 4-0 victory over Ukraine
It is why the core of the team, those players with the longest England careers, have been so important. For all the focus on the youth of the squad, it could even be said that the 4-0 win over Ukraine was mostly a victory for those senior players, who have actually faced the most questions of late.
Part of the reason it was the perfect win was because of so many previous imperfections.
Consider Southgate’s core “leadership” group.
Jordan Pickford has had a difficult time at Everton over the last two seasons, and there have been frequent calls to drop him. He made a crucial save early on here, and underpinned a defence that kept a record fifth consecutive clean sheet at a European Championships.
In front of him, Harry Maguire started the season with a Greek court case hanging over his head and ended it injured, with frequent questions over whether he should even be in the squad. He instead complemented another clean sheet with his first goal of the tournament.
“The beginning of this season was very difficult for Harry on a number of fronts, so it’s brilliant to see how he has emerged with so much more confidence as a leader,” Southgate said. “You can see he’s more confident in himself and has gone on to another level, not just on his game but on his maturity.”
Before the tournament, some questioned whether Raheem Sterling was worth his place in the England team, and the player ha spoken of his unhappiness at the lack of game time he was afforded at Manchester City last season. He has responded with a series of performances that make him a contender for player of the tournament, and on Saturday added a supreme assist to his array of goals.
Sterling, of course, supplied a player he had arguably covered for in the opening games, with Harry Kane’s lack of goals leading to debates over whether he should be dropped. The striker has settled such discussion with three knockout goals, as he now looks like he could again be a tournament top scorer. The beautifully ambitious volley he struck in the second half against Ukraine was the clearest sign of a player back in the mood.
“We said after the goal against Germany that could be a massive release,” Southgate said. “I think we saw that with the finishes against Ukraine and then the incredible volley just before the corner for Hendo’s goal.”
Jordan Henderson capped off the win against Ukraine with his first England goal
Oddly, England’s fourth might actually be the most significant strike of the lot, and not only because it was Jordan Henderson’s long-awaited first international goal. The reaction to the Liverpool man’s header fully displayed the togetherness of the squad. Southgate was particularly proud of how Jude Bellingham reacted, showing the connection between senior midfielder and his hugely impressive young understudy.
“I loved some of the reaction on the bench when Hendo scored because you could see the younger players were totally delighted for him. There’s a lovely moment with Jude that shows you what Hendo brings to our environment, that the players were so pleased for him. We all were.
“He’s really accepted that this was going to be a difficult and different challenge but he’s totally thrown himself into it. When I talked to him a few weeks ahead of the first training camp we talked through this scenario, he was adamant he just wanted to be a part of it and wanted to contribute in any way he could. It’s brilliant for him that he’s had a moment like last night and he’s been crucial around the camp as to what we’re doing.”
This is precisely the point about that core, and what they carry through. Southgate refers to them as the “tribal elders”.
“Within any team there’s a core group that drive the team and I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that. I’ve talked before about young players that come, have high ambition and they want to win and they want to do well, but there’s a bond between groups that forms over a period of time where you know when challenges are made, when there’s a need to dig in, when things are happening around the camp – and that core group is really important. The lads that were with us in Russia … have been through these experiences together that they pass on to the younger group as well and the newer group and they take the lead from the tribal elders, if you like, so I think it is key. It’s not just about talent.”
It has meant there is unity in the squad despite some not playing; that there is coherence despite players suddenly being drafted back in.
“Maybe in the past we were so heavily reliant on one player and that heaped huge pressure on them,” Southgate said. “But now the collective is strong and we have been able to withstand missing some key players and still get results.
“The back four has been the best example of that. To make changes in defence is often complicated, but whoever has come in has really done an incredible job. The standard has not dropped throughout the tournament.
Squad goals: Conor Coady, left, is a big character in the dressing room
“There is a consistency to our behaviours, our values, the decision-making process. It doesn’t mean that everybody in the camp this morning is thrilled and happy, because there are 10 lads who haven’t got on the pitch. As much as they are giving themselves to the team, you’re never going to have everybody in a perfect individual place and feeling fulfilled. But I think they recognise what has been built. Conor Coady was the first one off the bench last night, jumping in the air, replicating Hendo’s header – I could see him as I was watching the video back this morning. That type of character – someone like Conor who is one of the loudest voices in the dressing room before a game and on the training pitch every day – you can’t put a value on those sorts of people.”
England can put a value on this tournament, though. The clear expectation is to get into a final. A semi-final no longer cuts it.
They’ve been there and done that. The national team as a whole just haven’t passed that barrier since 1966.
“We’ve knocked off so many hoodoos or perceived barriers already and I feel like this group of players will feel this is just the next challenge,” Southgate says.
Though the Three Lions have evidently been on an emotional journey, Denmark’s path to the semi-finals has proved even more intense given the on-field collapse of Christian Eriksen.
“I can imagine what it has done for the Danish team, their bond. We are talking about the things we have been through but what they went through that day – the way their captain was and the way the group was – and how that would have connected with their supporters, that’s pretty powerful. They are riding a wave of emotion for certain and that’s a powerful force that’s coming to Wembley. Those things definitely have an impact on your thinking.”
The thinking of an England squad, however, has never been clearer.
“Our group are ready to get to the next step – they are excited by that challenge.”
They are now, undeniably, a tournament team.
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